In his article for the National Review, Victor Davis Hanson laments over what he observes to be an epidemic of ignorance in our country, giving examples of young adults not being able to do simple math or even read. While he admits that the fault lies not only with the schools, but also with the disintegration of the American nuclear family, he claims one fundamental problem is a faulty education philosophy that is characteristic of our public schools. In particular, he asserts that “sermons on race, class, gender, drugs, sex, self-esteem, or environmentalism” effectively “squeeze out far more important subjects”, and, as a result, should be canned and replaced with what he calls “traditional learning”:


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The old approach to education saw things differently than we do. Education (“to lead out” or “to bring up”) was not defined as being “sensitive” to, or “correct” on, particular issues. It was instead the rational ability to make sense of the chaotic present through the abstract wisdom of the past.

So literature, history, math and science gave students plenty of facts, theorems, people, and dates to draw on. Then training in logic, language, and philosophy provided the tools to use and express that accumulated wisdom. Teachers usually did not care where all that training led their students politically — only that their pupils’ ideas and views were supported with facts and argued rationally. (Read entire article)

What Hanson has described here generally characterizes what is sometimes called a “classical education”, although the author uses the term “liberal education”. Much of what is taught as classical education today follows in the wake of a 1947 essay by Dorothy Sayers called The Lost Tools of Learning” in which Sayers claims that modern schools spend far too much time teaching subjects and not enough time teaching students how to think. Douglas Wilson brought back the spirit of Sayers’s work in his 1991 book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. In his book, Wilson focuses in particular on a classical Christian education. His book was very popular and spurred a movement in the Christian community to incorporate the classical curriculum and method in their homeschools and private schools. The Association of Classical Christian Schools was formed in 1994.

While content may vary, the method of classical education is the trivium, which consists of the grammar stage, dialectic (logic) stage, and rhetoric stage. While some differ on what age/grade a child moves from one stage to the next, generally speaking, the grammar, dialectic and rhetoric stages correspond to elementary, middle school, and high school, respectively. In the grammar stage, students focus on the accumulation of information. Children of this age enjoy memorization and are usually quite good at it. In the dialectic stage, students become more concerned with the “why” of things and begin to analyze the data they learned in the grammar stage. Students are often taught formal logic during this stage. In the rhetoric stage, students build on the logic stage and learn to think through ideas and express their own opinions with clarity and originality.

Susan Wise Bauer, coauthor of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, has a very nice, succinct article on the definition of classical education on her website. This article is a great read for anyone wanting to learn more about classical education.

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